Paul Johnson downplays rivalry with Notre Dame's Brian VanGorder

If there’s a real rivalry between Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Johnson isn’t going to add any fuel to the fire before the teams face off Saturday in South Bend.

Johnson said Monday that he never has had so much as a conversation with VanGorder, and the perception that the two dislike each other is overblown.

“I don’t know where everybody got that,” Johnson said. “I’ve never coached against the guy. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a conversation.”

Despite Johnson’s protests, there is a history between them.

Johnson served as the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern in the mid-1980s and as head coach there from 1997 through 2001, running his option offense with great success. But after his successor, Mike Sewak, was fired following the 2005 season, Georgia Southern tabbed VanGorder as its new head coach, and VanGorder immediately abandoned the option scheme.

“He said something about bringing them into the 21st century,” Johnson recalled. “And I said, ‘There’s a [scoring] record there, shoot for it.’ So that was it.”

As it turned out, Johnson was right. VanGorder struggled to implement a new scheme and he resigned after a 3-8 season.

“I always looked to see what their score was, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” Johnson said of that 2006 Georgia Southern team.

Perhaps that’s true, but according to Roger Inman, a longtime Georgia Southern administrator, Johnson was angry enough about VanGorder’s comments in 2006 to try to schedule payback.

“Paul called me up and said, 'I need to talk to [athletics director] Sam [Baker] and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,'" Inman told USA Today last year. "I said, 'Why do you want to play us?' And he said, 'Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.'"

Johnson never got that chance when VanGorder was at Georgia Southern, but the two will now go head to head Saturday — with both teams ranked in the top 20. But if Johnson is taking the game personally, he certainly doesn’t want his players to do the same.

“We’ve just got to go do our thing,” Johnson said. “It’s as much about us as it is who we play.”

This also marks Georgia Tech’s first road game of the year, and Johnson said he has tried to remind his players that the stage shouldn’t overwhelm them.

“They have a lot of tradition and history and really good teams,” Johnson said of Notre Dame. “But it’s just like going to play anybody else. We never made a big deal about going there to play. It’s like going to Clemson to play. You’re going against good players. It ought to be fun.”